Elisabeth Anderson. Agents of Reform: Child Labor and the Origins of the Welfare State

via Zoom

The beginnings of the modern welfare state are often traced to the late nineteenth-century labor movement and to policymakers’ efforts to appeal to working-class voters. But regulatory welfare actually began a half century earlier with the passage of child labor laws. Middle-class reformers in Europe and the U.S. defined child labor as a threat to social order, built alliances to maneuver around powerful political blocks, and instituted new employment protections that initiated the partial decommodification of "free" labor. Later in the century, now with the help of an organized working class, they created factory inspectorates to strengthen and routinize the state’s capacity to intervene in industrial working conditions.  Through seven in-depth case studies of key policy episodes, Agents of Reform (Princeton University Press, 2021) moves beyond standard narratives of interests and institutions toward an integrated understanding of how these interact with individual agency to produce pathbreaking institutional change.


Elisabeth Anderson is assistant professor of sociology at NYU Abu Dhabi.  Her areas of specialization are historical and comparative sociology, political sociology, and social theory. She is broadly interested in why states enact social policies to protect groups that cannot or do not advocate for themselves, and the role policy entrepreneurs play in such reforms.

Her work on the political origins of consumer credit regulation and child labor legislation has appeared in Social Science History, Theory and Society, and the American Sociological Review. Agents of Reform is her first book.